Free Agency Frenzy

Free Agency Frenzy

July 1.

            It should have been joyful, the true start to the summer. Drinking Molsons in his backyard, on the lake in Okanagan, lighting fireworks as the sun went down, canoeing across the still waters with a miniature Canadian flag flying in the breeze as he paddled along with the kids, keeping time and steering them while they convinced themselves they were helping.

            Instead, he was stuck inside watching TSN and ESPN, alternating them between commercial breaks, refreshing his browser incessantly. His phone was close at hand, the ringer on loud. The kids lurked nearby, occasionally peering round the corner into the den to see what Daddy was doing.

 

            Halpy hated that he was glued to his screen when he should have been celebrating Canada Day with his kids. Making the most of their summer. Ally was already seven and Piper was five. Soon enough, they’d both be teenagers, too old for him.
            But today was the first day of free agency, and the market had already gone wild. Refreshing his browser every five minutes was scarcely enough to keep up with the volume of trades and signings and rumors and speculations. It was madness.
            He’d decided to test the waters when his contract with the Knights expired last night at 11:59 pm. He was a free man, able to sign with anyone who offered him something he or his agent thought was reasonable. He’d performed well—he was no superstar, surely, and he’d never be Mason Green or Sean Flanagan or Symon Tremblay—but he thought he’d had a good couple of seasons and maybe, just maybe, he could twist some arms and get a better deal than 2.25 million a year.
            The Knights had been steadfast in their refusal to pay him anything more than that. He was thirty-three, going on thirty-four, and they wanted to agree to terms on a 5-year basis for most of their players, spreading out their cap hit to get more mileage. He knew for a fact it had a lot to do with Mayday’s massive contract—something the Knights were looking to move as Mayday slumped in scoring over the last season or so. Mayday himself was discontent with the team, arguing that he got no support on the ice—or off. He wanted better, more talented teammates. The guys the Knights were signing, they couldn’t keep up.
            And he was right. Guys like Halpy couldn’t keep up with egos like Mason fucking Green. Guys like Halpy did much better when there was a great team atmosphere, no superstar egos in the way of working together. He’d played on a couple of other teams before, teams that had amazing chemistry between their guys. Even if they were “less talented,” they were solid, stand-up players. On their own, maybe they were mediocre. When they worked together, they could be amazing.
            A guy like Mason simply outplayed them all. They were no match, and that sowed the seeds of dissension and discontent in the ranks. They couldn’t work together, even if Mason tried to take an ingratiating tack—which he rarely did. Jarhead knew he was good, too good for the Knights.
            And management did nothing about it. Mason loved his teammates dearly, but they hung him and the goalie out to dry on an almost nightly basis. D collapsed, and Mason was left to pick up the offensive slack on his own. A guy like Halpy was good for maybe fifteen goals in a season, a few more assists. Mason could score fifty or more, if someone gave him the right center.
            But the Knights would have trouble moving Mason’s contract, so they were acting like they were stuck with him—which they were, to an extent. A guy making 8.5 million and slumping was a hard sell for the other teams, even if he had been the number one draft pick in his year.
            So the Knights kept their cap hit on Mason and looked to sign other players cheaply, which exacerbated the problem. They signed rookies and talentless guys, overpaid hacks and engaged in a vicious cycle of calling up and sending down with the farm team, trading for picks and no-name players with little IHA experience. They tried to sign guys like Halpy for less than they were worth.
            Halpy had already been offered 3 mill a year for two years, a much more appealing offer for a guy like him. He just didn’t really want to go to Miami. Sure, the weather was nice, but the Sharks were shit. Yes, they’d pay, but why was he trading one shit team for another at his age? He wanted a Cup ring, a real chance. In a few years, he’d be retiring.
            The pressure was on.
            The phone rang, shrilling and drowning out the announcers blathering away about the latest signing—the New York Americans signing some rookie, locking him up for six years. That was the kind of IHA they existed in. Contracts got longer and longer, locking guys in, shackling them to a team for half their careers or more, at the mercy of the team deciding to trade them, buy them out, waive them.
            It was stupid.
            “Y’llo,” he said, leaning back into the sofa, muting the television.
            Ally and Pip peered around the corner again.
            “Hey,” Mario said, “how’s it goin’? I got another offer on the table here—looks like the Colts are interested, but they won’t match the Sharks.”
            “What’ve they got?”
            “Two-point-five,” Mario replied.
            “Can ya butter ‘em up?”
            “Nah, I already tried—brass is tryin’ to cheap out. Offered me performance bonuses when I asked for more, said that’s not a good idea for a guy like you, not at this stage in your career.”
            He glanced at his children. Ally’s knuckles were white as she clung to the doorjamb. He sighed and looked back at the television. “Keep shopping,” he said, “we got all summer.”
            “All right,” Mario said. “Sharks are reconsidering their offer–”
            “And the Miami Sharks have signed center Evgeni Utnik to a $78 million contract. Reports are saying that’s over ten years.”
            Halpy stared at the television. “Well then,” he said.
            “Shit,” Mario spat. “I’ll call you back.”
            Halpy pitched the phone aside, shaking his head. Utnik was already thirty; signing him for ten years was idiotic. No doubt it was a move to circumvent salary cap restrictions—Utnik wasn’t a player anyone had tabbed to play until he was forty, not with how often he was injured. He’d probably retire at thirty-five, take a payout, and return to Russia to play in the RKHL.
            Nonetheless, the Sharks weren’t interested in another center, that much was clear. That 3 mill a year was off the table.
            Maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe he should have just accepted the Knights’ offer, re-signed. He glanced toward the door again, but the kids were gone.
            It was such a pain in the ass to move. They’d done it a couple of times—once when they were first married, once when Ally was two and Piper was just a baby. They’d moved down to LA. It was hard to believe he’d been in LA for five whole years, but that was the fact.
            Ally only vaguely remembered moving; Piper had no recollection. Both of them split time between LA and Nelson, BC, attending school in LA and spending their summers at camp and with their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins in Nelson. That wouldn’t change—but school would.
            Piper had just started school, but Ally had been going for three years now and she’d be starting the third grade in September. She had so many friends; they’d invited nearly twenty kids to her birthday party last November. No doubt moving scared her.
            Maybe he did need to just agree to terms. Did he really need more than 2.25 million a year? He’d already made so much, already earned so much more than so many other people …
            “We’re getting reports that the Dallas Longhorns have come to terms with goaltender Kyosti Jokela. The deal is reportedly worth $47 million over four years …”
            “What does this mean for William Watson? The young goaltender was on a one-year contract with the Longhorns, but Dallas has clearly put their money behind Jokela. It’s no secret that Watson wants the no. 1 job?”
            “Quite simply, Elliot, Watson hasn’t shown the Longhorns—or anyone in the IHA for that matter—that he can do that no. 1 job. The Longhorns have bet on Jokela—and he was the better goaltender for them all season long.”
            “But Watson also had an amazing season, Kip. Even if he played relatively fewer games, his numbers still best Jokela’s–”
            “The problem is you can’t have two number-one goalies? And Watson might be a number one goalie, but the team didn’t trust him enough.”
            “So the question is, will someone else trust him?”
            Halpy sighed and put the channel back on mute. He hated watching sports television; he got enough of the pundits and talking heads at the arena. He didn’t need to listen to them on the radio or on the television either.
            He hit refresh on his webpages again. Another round of signings hit the page—about ten in the last ten minutes or so. The market was hot this year—which didn’t bode well for Halpy. In years when the market was more sluggish, with less talent, he could have commanded a higher price. In this market, he was unlikely to get his asking price since there were so many others—and teams were clearly trying to snap up whoever they thought was their best bet. As signings trickled in, teams would be re-gearing, retooling their strategies. They’d be overpaying for a lot of guys, that was for sure.
            Halpy sighed and flicked off the tube. It was only noon, but he was exhausted. The feeding frenzy on free agency was draining; the manic energy with which signings were happening was overwhelming.
            Nonetheless, he likely wasn’t going to be signed today, or tomorrow for that matter. He’d likely have to wait until later in the summer, when everything had died down and teams had a chance to really look at their rosters, who was left. Mario would keep shopping him, he knew, but who knew …
            He didn’t like the idea of crawling back to the Knights. If he did that, they were liable to offer him a raw deal, rescind the money they’d already offered him and cut it down. He hated the idea, but he’d kind of deserve it for rejecting them in the first place.
            He meandered to the kitchen, glancing into the girls’ rooms as he passed by. Ally was sitting at her desk, her head down as she colored. Piper was playing quietly with her dolls, her back to him.
            He made PB&J sandwiches for lunch and cut the girls’ into fun shapes with the cookie cutters, since neither of them liked crusts. Hearts and bunnies graced the platter.
            “Are we moving, Daddy?” Ally asked him around a mouthful of sandwich.
            “Don’t talk with your mouth full, sweetie,” he admonished, wiping jam off Piper’s cheek.
            Ally dropped her sandwich on her plate. “Daddyyyyy …”
            “I don’t know yet, sweetie,” he replied, scrubbing at Piper’s cheek with his thumb, even as the younger girl made a face and tried to pull away. “Mario is working on it, but we have to see what team is gonna give me a good offer.”
            Ally wrinkled her nose and stared at her sandwich with disdain. “I don’t wanna move,” she spat at last, then shoved her plate away and hopped down from the table.
            “Hey! Alison, did I say you’re excused?!”
            The door slamming was his answer. He winced, then looked at his youngest daughter. “How about you, Pip? Do you wanna move?”
            She looked up at him with her big, brown eyes, then shook her head. “I’ll stay with Ally,” she said.
            He laughed a little, stroked her downy hair. “Well, you’ll both be coming with your mom and me. Okay?”
            “Ally says we’ll run away if you move.”
            “Oh, does she now?”
            “Uh-huh.”
            “Well, we’ll see about that … she might just get a pony if she comes with us.”
            Piper’s eyes lit up. “A pony?” she asked, her voice trembling.
            “Yup,” he replied, “maybe we’ll move somewhere that we can get a farm, and then Ally can go riding every day.”
            Piper opened her little mouth wide, her breath a rushing hiss, and then she leapt down from the table, dashing down the hall, slipping and sliding in her socks. “Ally!” she shrieked. “Ally, Daddy says we’re getting a pony!”
            Frantic knocking. “A pony, Ally, a pony–”
            “Go away! I don’t want a stupid pony!”
            Halpy sighed heavily. He hadn’t exactly thought it was gonna be easy to convince his daughters to move, but he hadn’t really been anticipating that Ally’s sorrow at losing her friends would outweigh her want of a pony. She loved horses and ponies—her teacher had complained that was the only kind of book the girl would check out of the library, and her room was decorated with more My Little Pony than you could shake a tail at.
            The phone shrilled and he nearly toppled out of his chair. He scurried back to the den, hitting speaker phone as he answered.
            “Adam.” Mario’s voice crackled over the speaker.
            “Yeah,” he replied breathlessly.
            “I got Rockets’ management on the other line.”
            “The … Rockets?”
            “Yeah. They’re saying three-and-a-half, two-years, take it or leave it. They need third-line production.”
            “Fuck, yes,” Halpy spat, then glanced at the doorway. He lowered his voice. “I mean, yes. I’ll take that. Hash out the terms with them.”
            “On it,” Mario replied. “I’ll send the deets over.”
            “Awesome.”
            He stared at the phone for a moment after Mario hung up, just looking at the blank screen.
            The Rockets. Pittsburgh. That was pretty cool, he thought. Sure, it was a long way away from LA and the West Coast, but now Ally and Piper could see a real winter. They could go skiing. And he was buying them both ponies. Even Suzie would love it—she had always loved horses and she encouraged Ally in her love of the animals. She would scarcely object to a horse farm.
            “Ally! Pip! We’re moving to Pittsburgh!” he called.
            Piper came running. “Do we get ponies?!” she cried, skidding to a stop, then falling flat on her butt.
            Ally stopped short of kicking her sister, scowling at the younger girl. Then she glared at her father, her arms crossed over her chest.
            “Yes,” he said, “you’re both getting ponies. We’re gonna live on a horse farm in Pittsburgh. In the winter, you can take skating lessons and skiing lessons.”
            “Yay!” Piper cried, throwing her hands up. “I’m gonna call Mommy!”
            She skittered out of the room. Ally kept glaring, before sighing and unfolding her arms. She looked at the floor. “Am I really getting a pony?”
            “Yes,” he said.
            She looked up, almost shyly. “And … can I take skating lessons?”
            “Yup. You can learn to skate outdoors on a pond. We’ll get you figure skating lessons and–”
            “No.”
            He looked at his daughter, her chestnut-colored locks swinging to and fro as she shook her head. “I don’t wanna figure skate,” she mumbled. “I wanna learn how to skate. Like you, Dad.”
            Halpy stared at her for a moment, unable to respond as the balloon of pride swelled in his throat, choking him.
            Ally wanted to learn to skate like him. She wanted to learn to skate like a hockey player.
            “Sweetie,” he said, “you can do anything you wanna do. And if you wanna learn to skate like me—if you wanna learn to play hockey, you can.”
            “You mean that?”
            He nodded.
            “’cause my friend Erica said I can’t, ‘cause girls don’t play hockey and–”
            He snorted, closed his eyes. “C’mere,” he said, crouching down and opening his arms. She hesitated, then dove in for a hug. He wrapped her up tight. “You can do anything you want, my girl, okay?” He ruffled her hair fondly.
            “Okay,” she said, nodding.
            “We’ll talk to your mom about getting a pair of hockey skates, okay?”
            She nodded again. He smiled broadly at her, and she smiled back.
            And, well, everything was going to be okay.
            “Let’s go light off some fireworks, okay?”
            “Yeah!”
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